Movie List

25 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time

Updated August 11, 2019
19 min read

Imagine going to a movie and sitting through the entire length just looking at plain visuals bereft of any characterization! While technically, an audio-visual material of such a hue and nature might still be called a movie, the experience wouldn’t really be as electrifying as it is when we look at characters and admire at their eccentricities. Accept it! We all are voyeuristic some way or the other and that is exactly the psychological reason why we see movies. We like to peep into the lives of others without them knowing about it. Movies, in ways more than one, simulate that experience. And what is a movie without characters?

Characters take us inside the movie world, create empathy, weave disgust, create fear, make us confused, amuse us, make us happy and finally make us marvel at the medium. Now think about those innumerable characters that you might have experienced through the movies. Chances are that you would remember only a few of them. The reason is not very difficult to decipher. It is because some characters are memorable while the rest deserve to get thrown into the pit of oblivion.

We at The Cinemaholic took our chances and collated 25 such film characters who we think make for the most interesting study. Well, let us just say that the list of the greatest movie characters is not beyond grey areas. In our quest to select the best ones, we might have missed some. It would be the prerogative of the readers to bring the same to our light so that a future list could be made containing the greatest movie characters of all time, which is much more comprehensive than the one being presented below. So, what are we waiting for? Here is the list of top 25 greatest movie characters ever.

25. Captain Jack Sparrow

Sometimes treacherous, at times villainous, mostly funny and heroic sporadically; that is Captain Jack Sparrow for you! The principal protagonist of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Film Series, Sparrow is one of the most adored movie characters of all time. Portrayed by the indomitable Johnny Depp, Sparrow’s persona is way more complicated than what seems on the surface. An undying love for Rum and the word ‘savvy’ add layers to his character. Sparrow first makes his appearance in the movie ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (2003) and then in the sequels ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest’ (2006), ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’ (2007) and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’ (2011).

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24. Anton Chigurh

One of the most terrifying characters to have ever been portrayed on the silver screen, Anton Chigurh is almost the human incarnation of death. The antagonist of Coen Brothers’ ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007) based on a novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, the very sight of Chigurh has the potential to run shivers down the spines of any normal human being. Played by the critically acclaimed Spanish actor Javier Bardem, Chigurh has been rated as one of the 100 greatest movie characters of all time by the revered Empire Magazine. Cold, witty, uncannily articulate and precise; Chigurh happens to be a psychopathic hitman who is driven by the singular passion to kill. The portrayal of Chigurh earned Bardem an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award and a BAFTA.

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23. E.T.

Steven Spielberg’s immortal characterization of a friendly and cute alien changed the dynamics of cinema forever. The portrayal of E.T. probably sums up a very important part of our childhood. Adorable, compassionate, very humane and pleasantly funny; not just children but their parents also connect with the character instantaneously. In many ways, ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982) is a breakthrough movie. Not only did it open up newer vistas in the Science Fiction genre, but it also made us look at the concept of aliens in a different light altogether. To have not seen the movie could actually be termed cinematic blasphemy.

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22. Amelie

Considered to be one of the most important contemporary portrayals of alternative womanhood, the story of Amelie is at once heart-touching and heart-wrenching. She is intelligent, she is compassionate, she is beautiful; yet she is alone here and there. Amelie is a woman who seeks to change the lives of others for the better while she herself struggles to reconcile to herself and her environment. Played onscreen by the divinely pretty Audrey Tautou, Amelie tries to create an alternative worldly dimension through her acts. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, ‘Amelie’ leaves a rather pleasant taste in the mouth.

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21. The Dude

“He is the man for his time and place”. He sure is! The Dude! Do we need something else? We perhaps do! The protagonist of Coen Brothers’ cult classic ‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998), The Dude is a representation of everything that is vintage America. Jeffrey Lebowski, who likes to call himself the Dude, is an infernally lazy person who accidentally gets involved in a quagmire of crime with often hilarious repercussions. Played by Jeff Bridges, The Dude continues to be one of the most iconic characters of contemporary American cinema. In many ways, The Dude, though his actions, offers us with a scathing critique on the American society.

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20. Jason Bourne

Enigmatic, mysterious, charismatic, talented and dark – even all these adjectives aren’t enough to describe the antihero Jason Bourne, one of the most influential movie characters ever to have appeared on screen. Having first made his appearance with ‘The Bourne Identity’ (2002), he continued his tirades with ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ (2004) and ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ (2007). All these three films featured Matt Damon as the troubled CIA agent. Bourne makes his comeback, albeit in a different avatar, in the movie ‘The Bourne Legacy’ (2012) with Jeremy Renner acting out the part. Matt Damon was reintroduced as the titular character in the fifth film of the series ‘Jason Bourne’ (2016).

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19. Hans Landa

The maverick filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has been instrumental behind the creation of a number of memorable characters. However, one character that takes the pole position is Hans Landa. Being the primary antagonist of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009), Landa plays a fictional Nazi officer deputed in German-occupied France. The plot shows him to have been tasked with eliminating all the hiding Jews in France. Suave, sophisticated, subtle, articulate, cold, precise, focused, remorseless and murderous are probably some of the rather lackadaisical adjectives that can be used to describe the monstrosity that is Landa. Christoph Waltz acted out the part and managed to clinch the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in addition to the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Tarantino himself rates Landa as the best character he has ever written.

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18. Neo

The Chosen ‘One’! Created by the Wachowskis and the primary protagonist of ‘The Matrix’ series, Neo is also the anagram for the word one. In other words, Neo is projected to be the person who would end the rule of machines and bring peace to the fictional world shown in the series. A character that has reserved a place for itself in the halls of cinematic eternity, Neo was ranked as the 16th greatest movie character of all time by the much respected Empire Magazine in 2008. The character is played on screen by Keanu Reeves. The character makes his first appearance with the maiden movie of the series ‘The Matrix’ (1999). Subsequently, Neo continues his journey with the two sequels ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ (2003) and ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ (2003).

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17. Rocky Balboa

A character that propelled Sylvester Stallone to immediate stardom, Rocky Balboa is the titular protagonist in the ‘Rocky’ series and is considered to be one of the most legendary characters in the history of cinema. Created by Stallone himself and loosely inspired by a boxer named Chuck Wepner, Rocky represents the very essence of struggling against the odds. Stallone plays the character in all the seven (7) movies in the series. Rocky first enters the scene with the movie ‘Rocky’ (1976). Considered to be the perennial underdog, Balboa reminds us of the everyman who is always entangled in a continuous struggle for existence. The character of Rocky has been able to enter the psyche of the common American moviegoer.

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16. Norman Bates

Undoubtedly the scariest characterization from the coffers of the master cinematic craftsman Alfred Hitchcock, Norman Bates is the primary antagonist of ‘Psycho’ (1960), which is again based on a novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. Bates has a dual personality and is probably one of the most apt cinematic representations of the ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ phenomenon. Acted out by the very talented Anthony Perkins, Bates has become a horrific cultural icon. The character smacks of deep personal scars and psychological abuse at the hands of his mother. Traumatized and murderous – probably that is how one would be inclined to describe the character.

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15. Annie Hall

Neurotic, insecure, funny, witty, adorable and at times plain dumb – Annie Hall is your everyday woman, a woman who you either fall for or hate with a vengeance. Created by the meticulous Woody Allen, Annie Hall has today become a part of the composite American culture. Being the female protagonist of Allen’s masterpiece ‘Annie Hall’ (1977), Hall surprises all and sundry with her unpredictability. Played on screen by Diane Keaton, the then real love interest of Woody Allen, the chemistry reflects through the characterization. The role earned Keaton the Academy Award for Best Actress in addition to a Golden Globe Award.

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14. Keyser Söze

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”! This sums up everything about Keyser Söze. The main antagonist of Bryan Singer’s magnum opus ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995), no one gets any hint of who Söze might be until the climactic scene of the movie. The mysterious mob boss Söze is played on screen by the immensely talented Kevin Spacey, who otherwise is known in the movie as Verbal Kint, a hapless cripple involved in petty crimes. The role earned Spacey the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Söze has been repeatedly named as one of the greatest villains in reel history.

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13. Indiana Jones

He is not the archetypal archaeologist. While he is academically brilliant, he is equally proficient with the gun and the rope. His penchant for the unknown is universally known. Well, we are indeed deliberating on Indiana Jones, one of the more memorable mascots of America cinema. In an effort to reproduce the action heroes from the 1930s, George Lucas created Indiana Jones, an interesting amalgam of intellect and grit. Harrison Ford plays out the part with absolute élan. Jones makes his first appearance with ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981). He subsequently takes up the mantle of the action archaeologist with ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ (1983), ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (1988) and ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ (2008). A peculiar sense of humour, unmistakable charm, a fear of snakes and a deep voice mark the character.

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12. Han Solo

One of the principal characters in the ‘Original Star Wars Trilogy’, Han Solo happens to be a spaceship pilot who eventually becomes one of the most important figures in the Rebel Alliance’s fight against the fascist Galactic Empire. Created by George Lucas, Solo is marked by a seemingly tough exterior demeanour. However, he is shown to be good at heart and rather heroic in approach. He first appears in the first installment of the series ‘Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope’ (1977). Simultaneously, he becomes an important part of the two sequels ‘Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980) and ‘Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi’ (1983). Harrison Ford acts out the role of Solo. Ford reprised his role as Solo in ‘Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens’ (2015). Solo is considered to be one of the most popular characters in the history of cinema.

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11. Tyler Durden

Rated as the greatest movie character of all time by the Empire Magazine in 2008, Tyler Durden is the alter ego and the primary antagonist of David Fincher’s cult classic ‘Fight Club’ (1999), based on a novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk. Durden is portrayed as a supremely charismatic and highly dynamic nocturnal version of the film’s narrator, who is projected as a normal everyman. Psychologically, Durden is the aspirational self of the narrator. Suffering from severe depression and resultant insomnia, the narrator takes recourse to his more violent self in the night to escape from the drudgeries of everyday existence. Brad Pitt takes up the mantle of playing Tyler Durden with absolute gusto.

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10. Michael Corleone

Perhaps nobody needs an introduction of who Michael Corleone is! May be, some people still do! Michael Corleone is the central protagonist of all the three ‘Godfather’ movies, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Based on a novel ‘The Godfather’ by Mario Puzo, the character of Michael is considered to be both a villain and tragic hero. He makes his appearance with ‘The Godfather’ (1972) and simultaneously dons the central role in both ‘The Godfather: Part II’ (1974) and ‘The Godfather Part III’ (1990). He is projected as the son of mafia don Vito Corleone. Al Pacino plays the role of Michael Corleone in all the three movies.

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9. Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump could be considered to be one of the defining characters of American cinema. Almost iconic in stature, he is the central protagonist of Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Forrest Gump’ (1994), based on a novel of the same name by Winston Groom. Gump is portrayed as a naïve yet kind-hearted and athletically-inclined man whose actions influence some of the most notable moments of the twentieth (20th) century. Tom Hanks plays the role of adult Gump in the movie while Michael Humphreys acts out the role of Gump as a child. The role managed to bag the Academy Award for Best Actor for Hanks. Gump is usually projected as a heroic person who eventually comes up trumps in everything that he does.

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8. Terminator

Probably the most popular character of all time, Terminator somehow reminds us of our younger and better days. Terminator is nothing but a machine man or an android tasked with assassinations. While he is the antagonist in the first movie of the Terminator franchise, he becomes the protagonist in the rest of the movies. Originally created by James Cameron for the first movie of the series ‘The Terminator’ (1984), there have been other directors who have handled the responsibility for some of the later movies. The feisty Arnold Schwarzenegger dons the role in all the films of the series but one – Terminator Salvation (2009).

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7. Darth Vader

One of the most deadly villains in cinematic history, Darth Vader happens to be the primary antagonist of the ‘Original Star Wars Trilogy’. Known earlier as Anakin Skywalker, Vader’s tilt to the dark side of the force forms the crux of the ‘Star Wars Prequel Trilogy’ and is an important part of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (2015) as well. Created by George Lucas, Vader is also the father of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. The character of Vader has been played on screen by a number of actors. While he is mostly villainous, there are points when he succumbs to his good self.

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6. James Bond

Who doesn’t know about James Bond? Well, if you don’t, we might as well be inclined to believe that you were living in a rabbit hole! Supposing you were, we feel obligated to provide with the basic information on Bond, we mean James Bond! Officially known by his code number 007, Bond is an intelligence officer with the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. Sophisticated, versatile, extremely intelligent, charming, chivalrous and above all handsome – Bond has everything that any man would ever aspire. He never fails in any mission and he never misses an opportunity to woo girls who dare to come his way.

Created by Ian Fleming, primarily known for writing spy novels, James Bond has been portrayed on screen by many actors with the most notable ones being Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. It would be a gross understatement if we were to say that Bond constitutes nothing short of a phenomenon. Probably, it would be closer to reality if we just say that James Bond is James Bond and the rest are all pointless!

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5. Vito Corleone

Vito Corleone is one of the primary characters in the first two parts of the ‘Godfather’ movies, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on a novel by Mario Puzo. He is portrayed to be a mafia don and is the father of Michael Corleone, the protagonist of the series. Marlon Brando plays the role of Vito in ‘The Godfather’ (1972) and ‘The Godfather: Part II’ (1974). However, the younger Vito is enacted by Robert De Niro in the second part. The role earned De Niro the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Vito is largely considered to be one of the greatest movie characters of all time. A family man on one hand and a remorseless criminal on the other, he could possibly be categorized as the finest amalgam of moderation and extremism.

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4. Travis Bickle

Is Travis Bickle just a character? Probably yes, probably no! For us at The Cinemaholic, he is much more than just a character. He represents a generation, he represents a bygone era. With Vietnam War serving as the subtle background, Bickle is a veteran who works as a graveyard shift cabbie in the city of New York. With customers ranging from pimps to thieves, he fantasizes about cleaning up the city. Suffering from severe insomnia, he has a few friends and a rather laidback existence. Without a doubt, Bickle remains to be the best character shown in any of Martin Scorsese films. Written by Paul Schrader, the character is taken from the cult classic ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976), one of the defining movies in the history of cinema. Robert De Niro plays the role to universal acclaim. Rage, frustration, oblivion and futility act as the overriding motifs in Bickle’s characterization. As they say, the rest is history!

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3. The Joker

He is the mirror through which you look at your ugly face! He is the sociopathic representation of the criminal inherent in every man! He shows you the obvious pitfalls of the social structure that human beings have created! You hate him but you simply can’t brush him off! He is the Joker, the primary antagonist of Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008). Although he is the villain, you start siding with him somewhere. He represents the humane side of anarchy and chaos. Although he happens to be a character from DC Comics, the fact remains that he practically comes to life in the reel version by Nolan. Probably the most discussed villain of all time, the role was played by the actor Heath Ledger, the role bagging him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Ledger received the award posthumously.

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2. HAL 9000

For all you know, HAL 9000 is just a computer, a sentient one for that matter. However, it acted as the primary antagonist in Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). It has been rated as one of the greatest movie characterizations of all time. Throughout most of the movie, the computer is represented only with the help of a camera lens with either a red or a yellow light dot. The character was created by Arthur C. Clarke, whose story ‘The Sentinel’ acted as the inspiration for the movie. HAL 9000 controls the Discovery One spacecraft, as portrayed in the movie. Douglas Rain gives the voice for the computer. It might not be advisable to give any more information for the movie has to be seen to understand what the character is all about. For now, it is enough to say that it is no less than an actual villain.

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1. Hannibal Lecter

Created by Thomas Harris in his series of suspense novels, Hannibal Lecter or ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’ was cinematically introduced through Jonathan Demme’s classic ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991). In one of the most chilling depictions of a serial killer in contemporary cinema, Anthony Hopkins plays the brilliant forensic psychiatrist who also happens to be a psychopathic cannibal. For his role that had a screen time of only about fifteen (15) minutes, Hopkins was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor. Although he happens to be one of the antagonists in the movie, there is an element of ambiguity in what he aspires. Notwithstanding the fact that there are other movies that feature the character, nothing can possibly match the popularity of ‘Silence of the Lambs’. For us at The Cinemaholic, Lecter is the most charismatic character in cinematic history.

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